Tuesday 8 February 2011

Diverging tracks

When CAMRA was founded forty years ago, the UK beer landscape was very different from today. Off-trade sales accounted for less than ten per cent of the total, imports were virtually unknown and in pubs the choice was between cask, inferior pressurised versions of the same thing, and weak, ersatz keg lagers. An interest in real ale was pretty much synonymous with an interest in beer, at least within the confines of the British Isles.

Nowadays, of course, things are very different. The proportion of beer sold in the off-trade has steadily grown and is poised to overtake the on- trade within a couple of years. Within this market, CAMRA’s campaign for bottle-conditioned ales has signally failed to gain traction with the general drinking public in the way cask vs keg did. The quantity and variety of imported beers has steadily grown too, and many of the beers most celebrated by enthusiasts are imports. And the draught landscape in the pub is increasingly being transformed by premium and “craft” keg beers – Krombacher, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Duvel Green, Innis & Gunn, BrewDog – which may not be at the cutting edge as far as the beer geek is concerned, but are symptomatic of a much more adventurous and eclectic approach to beer drinking. The idea that a typical pub sells cask mild and bitter, John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Carling, Stella, Guinness and Strongbow is increasingly outdated.

There has been a recent series of postings on various beer blogs on the issue of cask vs keg vs bottles vs cans, and the general view on what makes for good beer has been a long way from the received wisdom of CAMRA. See, for example, this posting by award-winning blogger Mark Dredge, in which he says “Keg beer. Oooh, sexy keg beer, Craft Beer in a Keg. It's the Future!” and “I don't need to start on cans. We all know how I feel about them. GIVE ME GOOD BEER IN CANS! Yippee. THAT’S the future. Maybe.” Of course he’s laying it on with a trowel for effect, but you get the point.

The result is that there is a large and growing territory in which CAMRA and “beer enthusiasm in Britain” no longer overlap. This in future may well become a problem if potential recruits with a wide-ranging interest in beer are put off by the fact that the organisation ignores and indeed sometimes denigrates many of the brews they appreciate and enjoy drinking. In the beer landscape of twenty years hence, CAMRA could have become an irrelevance.

This is not a suggestion that CAMRA should reinvent itself as a “campaign for craft beer” (however that is defined) or suddenly decide that keg beers are part of its remit after all. But anyone responsible in any way for the public face of CAMRA would do well to reflect on the wise words of founder member Michael Hardman in a recent Financial Times article:

“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”
The future of CAMRA must lie in accentuating the positive, not waging a war over a line in the sand. Many thoughtful members of the organisation already take this on board, but, unfortunately, all too often its public image and pronouncements still don’t.


  1. A point often made is that the "Dicky English war on chemical fizz" represents a minority of CAMRA opinion and the majority of members enjoy many styles of beer but wish to campaign for a specific British Tradition. All well and good. You cannot tar all with the same brush. I suspect you and and Tand do not wear sandals with socks.

    Why is it then that the main national campaigning issue that Mike Benner appears to campaign on is the price of a can of lager? Why isn't he saying something about pongy ale being nice and people ought to try one?

    Maybe at a regional, local level you guys are a campaign for something. The national picture appears very different, and it is the national picture you all fund.

    The 80 odd % of drinkers that voted in a MEN poll against minimum pricing will not be thanking your beer club for campaigning for it.

  2. The "price of a can of lager" is a separate issue, of course, although one on which, as you know, we have a large measure of agreement.

    The question here is "why should I, as a beer enthusiast, want to join CAMRA?"

  3. Not entirely seperate, but I can accept a distinction. Why join CAMRA if you are a beer enthusiast? Well you get free entry to beer festivals and you get the fee back in Spoons tokens? Is that an answer? I quite liked the ones I’ve attended but I’m not sure it’s any better than walking into a beer geek pub for free. You can’t actually neck all 500 beers at a festival, even if you went every day, and why would you want to anyway? You really only want something nice to neck for that evening.

    Why would you want to be an active member? You tell me, you are the member. Is it a great club of beer enthusiasts, of like minded people? Is it a bunch of Dicky English types with lager boy t-shirts and sandals? Sell it to me Mudge, tell it like it is. I’m not averse to a pint of pong. I may like cheap lout but I can enjoy all forms of beer regardless of dispense.

  4. "Accentuating the positive, not waging a war over a line in the sand." Absolutely no argument with that. Yes, there are defensive CAMRA stereotypes - not the majority - but there also some CAMRA haters who are equally, if not more, combative.

    To either extreme, I usually point out that CAMRA is about choice, not about wiping out the "wrong" kind of beers, and if a person's choice is not to drink real ale, don't criticise their decision.

  5. For clarity I think there's an important 'Maybe' missing from the end of the first quote from me... It just grounds it a little more and demonstrates that I'm poking things with sticks as much as singing a hymn to non-real ale (I understand and appreciate how you've used it but others might not!!).

    It's an interesting idea and something we could likely discuss for days and days. The thing I see as a younger drinker is how many people want to drink different and interesting beers but don't necessarily care whether it's real ale or not (nor do they understand what real ale actually means). What is important is that the beer is good and so there should be a push on quality as much as promoting a particular dispense. If we want to encourage more people to drink interesting beer then it needs to be well made first before the dispense is even vaguely relevant.

    I hope kegs (and to a lesser extent cans) can introduce more people to these beers in a way which cask probably hasn't.

  6. I'm sure I’ve not come across "CAMRA haters", Nev, nor would I accept that as a description of myself. There is no shortage of CAMRA critics, but that is as you would expect. If CAMRA had no critics it would be because people thought it an irrelevance. In terms of “haters”, the only ones I’ve encountered are those that hate lager, Wethys, supermarkets, big brewers and it’s a free country, people can hate whatever they want without argument from me. When that hate becomes an inaccurate and offensive view of those, often the majority of people in the country, that do not share that hate, well I’m tempted to argue the toss.

  7. @Mark - yes, I know I was quoting you slightly out of context, but the point is very clear - here is an under-30 beer enthusiast saying "hey, these things might actually be pretty good."

    It certainly wasn't the case in 1971, but it is now possible to be quite a hardcore beer geek while scarcely touching anything that comes within CAMRA's remit. That is what *might* result in the organisation become increasingly irrelevant in future.

    I would set a challenge for anyone producing CAMRA publications or making public statements not to say anything negative about "non-real" beers purely on the grounds of packaging or dispense. To be fair, I think Opening Times makes a pretty good job of that already.

  8. I didn't have you in mind, CL, as I don't think you hate CAMRA. I agree there are legitimate critics of CAMRA, but I have also seen writings by people whose loathing of the campaign cannot be adequately described by the word 'critic'. People are entitled to hate CAMRA if they want, but their views are of no more value than those of CAMRA members who vociferously despise non-real beer and those who drink it.

  9. Curmudgeon: our CAMRA mag Ale & Hearty, which I've edited for a year, makes no mention of tins, keg, smoothflow, et al. You can't assume that all the people reading your mag in a pub like real ale, so it makes no sense to insult what they might be drinking.

    Much better to say, "Try this, it's great," rather than, "Don't drink that, it's rubbish."

    Actually, it's some time since I've seen the kind of negativity you describe in any CAMRA publication ~ your challenge may no longer be necessary.

  10. "Actually, it's some time since I've seen the kind of negativity you describe in any CAMRA publication ~ your challenge may no longer be necessary."

    Well, Page 2 of the latest issue of Out Inn Cheshire (which is notorious for this kind of thing) says "If the beer you see is dispensed from a hideous sculpted or illuminated monstrosity on the bar, leave it alone," and "Tins are always very, very bad."

    In fact, the use of the word "tins" rather than "cans" is indicative of a certain mindset.

  11. Good beer is good beer however it is packaged or served.

    If CAMRA want to wake up and embrace other quality "craft beer" products and processes kegs, cans, filtered etc then great I will be as happy as a pig in the proverbial, if not I'm obviously less happy but I don't think they will become obsolete and I will still remain a member.

    There will always be a place for well kept cask conditioned beer so there will always be a place for CAMRA to fight for the drinkers, breweries and pubs that serve real ale.

  12. "If the beer you see is dispensed from a hideous sculpted or illuminated monstrosity on the bar, leave it alone,"<<

    That's Deuchars, Black Sheep and Bombardier out, then...!

  13. Michael Hardman is largely correct. Clearly if you campaign FOR pubs, for instance, you will also have to campaign AGAINST pub closures from time to time. However generally speaking CAMRA's message should be to showcase good pubs and good beer (although I do recall getting one email accusing OT of not liking bad news....naming no names, Mudgie).

    I think the beer scene in the country is going through something of a sea change at the moment and while I don't think CAMRA will be left behind, its role will change. 15, 10 or even 5 years ago, when it came to the appreciation of good beer in the UK CAMRA effectively hosted the party as it were. Today it's just a guest at the party, with its contribution being cask beer. There's no reason why everyone at the party shouldn't get along and share each other's enthusiasms.

    Trouble is there are extremists on both sides from the "chemical fizz" camp in CAMRA to the "cask is dead" nonsense emanating from the likes of Lovibonds and, when they are in grandstanding mode, Brew Dog - I'm sure there are others.

    I always try and take a progressive view with opening Times but, you know, perhaps I should maintain my campaigning purity and take a leaf out of OIC's book. How about a new regular feature "Ban This Keg Filth"?*

    * for those may people in the beer bloggersphere who have had a sense-of-humourectomy that is not a serious proposal (just to make sure the likes of Pete Brown don't pluck it out of context and base a whole anti-CAMRA blog post on it...)

  14. Curmudgeon: I did say I haven't seen it, not that it doesn't happen. That kind of comment is plain stupid, and I think my mag's approach of not insulting your readers' taste in drinks is the correct one.

    Bad manners, apart from anything else.


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